I make a regular practice of keeping a bookmarks folder; “designers”, updated. I was looking through this folder last week at bookmarks I’d make a few of years ago and came across Marc Newson’s website. When making the bookmark, I remember quite liking his work but over the years it seems my taste has changed; looking at his website, I didn’t see anything which deeply impressed me. So after this, it was a nice coincidence that this weeks D&T lecture was a screening of BBC’s Imagine, Marc Newson: Urban Spaceman, a chance for me to learn something about him instead of simply judging his portfolio on his website. The documentary features Alan Yentob marvelling at Newson and a variety of his works, broken up with clips from interviews of other fans and friends of Newson, as if his ego needed inflated further.
A still from BBC's Imagine - Marc Newson: Urban Spaceman.
Perhaps I was being a bit harsh there, but the documentary failed to put across any critical views of Newson’s work even though it tends to separate people the way marmite does (I’ll come back to what I dislike about Newson). Instead, a common theme emerged of people questioning whether or not Newson’s work is design or art, which I feel is a trivial point to discuss; what does it matter if it is art or design? Can’t it be both? I feel that one should be allowed to be fluid between disciplines. This is something that seems to come naturally to Newson, he was trained as a jeweller but has worked on a huge variety of projects so has experience in many different fields and is pretty playful with his work, which I like. Unfortunately for Newson however, he has been labeled a designer, not an artist, by society. I say unfortunately not because I think artists are superior to designers but because this is what people with substantial wealth seem to think. I feel Newson seems to be fairly comparable to Koons.
Marc Newson's Orgone Chair
There is an obvious similarity in their works aesthetic with fluid chromatics forms but I’d say also that they have similar personalities and appeal to a similar audience. They both seem to have a crass, horny, sex obsessed inflated sort of ego. Despite the similarity in their work and personalities, there is a substantial difference in the financial value of their work. Newson, has managed to bag the highest price for a design object ever to be sold in an auction, at just under $2.5M, yet Koon’s work sells at an average of around $4M (in 2014) and has sold multiple sculptures for more than $20M, one sold for a record price of $58M which is just crazy. I can’t comprehend why Koon’s work would be worth so much more than Newson’s however I think it is reasonable to deduce from the fact that Newson is the creator of the most expensive piece of design work that it could be down to the fact that he is known as a designer and not an artist (although Koon's sculptures can be pretty big, Newson's Lockheed Lounge is also fairly large).
Koon's Magenta Balloon Dog
Marc Newson's Alufelt Chair
Marc Newson's Orgone Lounge
Despite not being worth as much as Koons, Newson’s work obviously still has a very high price tag and I’m not sure I understand why, it must be down to taste. I feel that there are two poles in types of designers: those concerned with detail and those more concentrated on the user (ideally I’d aim to be somewhere between the two). Newson is obviously the type to be focused very much on the detail. I’d criticise Newson for having a very internal, self justified design process with little consideration for the user, in the documentary he explains his design process: he says he sits with his eyes closed and imagines the objects form, this is something I have also found myself doing however I would then try to externalise it in some way and get feedback. It is clear much of his furniture is not made for comfort or the average consumer but I think even his more commercial work lacks consideration for the user.
Marc Newson's Horizon 50 for Louis Vuitton
For instance, recently, in 2016, he designed a suitcase, the Horizon, for Louis Vuitton. He explained that he is “obsessive about packing everything into a bag of a certain size which is why it was so important for me to design a product that could tick all of those boxes and be the kind of the perfect piece of luggage for a person like me, that travels and won’t travel with anything more than is absolutely necessary.” So it is clear he is designing very much for himself, which is fine, however I think when designing for a commercial market you aught to think about what others want out of a suitcase and not just about yourself.
His approach to the problem was simply to refine the design of existing suitcases in order to optimise the internal capacity, he did this by fixing the extendable handle to the outside of the case instead of mounting it internally like a conventional suitcase which causes bumps and ridges. He claimed that this “development resulted in an increase internal volume of 15% percent compared to a similar sized trunk with the traditional internal mounted cane, and an unparalleled 37-litre capacity in the cabin size. Lightweight, strong and resistant, the trunk weighs a mere 2.7 kilos for the 50 version and 3 kilos for the cabin size, excluding the inside elements.” After reading this statement I decided to do a little research into the market and almost immediately found a suitcase manufactured by IT Luggage which is the same size, has the same capacity of 37L but weighs just 1.63 kg, almost half of Newson’s case for Louis Vuitton. There is obviously going to be a dramatic difference in the cost of the products, the Louis Vuitton Horizon 50 costs £2,330.00 where as the IT Luggage case costs just £29.99 from Tesco and comes with a ten year warranty, the Louis Vuitton case is not clear about a warranty. The Horizon 50 uses Polypropylene to offer structural stability and is the outer shell, where as the IT Luggage case uses a tough fibreglass frame and a fabric polyester shell, which one could argue is more repairable, although I have to say it is pretty ugly.
Suitcase by IT Luggage
Both Newson and IT luggage tried focusing on improving the specs of the suitcase i.e. the weight and capacity. Bugaboo however, went down another root and designed a suitcase more concentrated on the user, re-imagining the experience one might have with a suitcase, in their words “it is not a suitcase. It’s a system.” Bugaboo’s luggage system is made up of interlocking cases which click together. Designed with ergonomics in mind - it can be pushed or pulled with easy steering. There is an “essentials” compartment for boarding passes etc, a luggage strap for extra things like jackets, the wheels and handle effortlessly fold away for easy storage, the lining is removable and can be used as a day bag or strapped onto the outside for extra accommodation of purchases bought while away! The user has been heavily considered and common problems for everyone addressed. It seems a clever system.
The Bugaboo Boxer
Having critiqued Newson for his lack of attention to the user, I do still believe it is important for a designer to pay attention to aesthetics and detail. Newson is playful with his processes and in doing so creates some beautiful objects. I think beautiful objects and playfulness have an important role in our lives, we need objects that evoke emotional, visceral and reflective feelings or life would simply be mundane. Perhaps if I hadn’t already written so much (sorry, I got carried away), then I’d go into what I like about Newson, however I think I’ve gone on too long as it is!